The Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer
Th.D. Student, Anglican Studies and Church History
A special Christian formation time for children during the principal worship service is a familiar practice in Episcopal Churches. This semester, six children participated in a children’s formation program during the weekly Community Eucharist service at The General Theological Seminary. While the Seminary gathered for its principal worship service, children met in a student lounge which was temporarily transformed into a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. After a presentation, prayer time, and time to work with the materials, the children joined their parents and other members of the seminary community in the sanctuary to exchange the peace and to participate in communion.
The Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer, a doctoral student in Anglican Studies and Church History, organized the atrium. Nancy Hennessey '16 and two childcare workers assisted in the atrium.
Bailey Fischer launched the program in January 2016. The atrium will take a break for the summer and start again in the fall. Support from a United Thank Offering (UTO) 2016 Seminarian Grant will help pay for the atrium materials and training for assistant catechists and Level 1 catechists. Funds from the grant will be used to build a portable atrium that can be dismantled and restored weekly for the children, thereby optimizing the shared space. The UTO grant will also subsidize assistant catechist training for parents and volunteers, as well as Level 1 catechist training for as many as three General seminarians. The three-hour assistant catechist training will be available for students in fall 2016. The goal is to send at least one to three seminarians to a 45-hour Level 1, Part 1 training session by the summer of 2017.
Currently, building the General Seminary portable atrium is one of the outreach projects of a group Bailey Fischer helped start, the Northern New Jersey (NNJ) Good Shepherd Guild. The NNJ Good Shepherd Guild is one of many regional groups being formed across the country in conjunction with the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
The NNJ Good Shepherd Guild meets regularly for fellowship, learning opportunities, and outreach. As an extension of their own parish ministries in various Christian Formation programs, the NNJ Good Shepherd Guild’s two outreach goals are to provide Christian Formation for unchurched families and families in struggling churches with small church school programs.
The Guild hosted a workshop on April 9 at General Seminary for catechists in the tristate region, which focused on helping them learn strategies to minister to older children within a Level 1 setting. The work to build the network of catechists into a community of practice was funded by a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society. This grant financed networking and training costs. Materials were paid for by donations from guild members.
The General Seminary Good Shepherd atrium was not originally part of the Guild’s outreach project. However, while in conversation with the leadership of the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Bailey Fischer was encouraged to do more than just promote the program; she was challenged to host an atrium as a lead catechist. Bailey Fischer, who is trained in all three levels of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, had helped start or support several atria in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. However, she had not had an opportunity to host her own atrium until the one at General Seminary.
Last fall, when considering where to start an atrium, Bailey Fischer had thought about starting an one at a parish. However, as a General Seminary doctoral student preparing for comprehensive exams, Bailey Fischer found that, if she were not in the library, she would be attending the Seminary’s principal service. That’s when she began to notice the families on campus and their large number of small children. The families caught Bailey Fischer’s attention because this scene was very familiar. For when she was a small child, her father attended seminary. Her father, the Rev. John W. Bailey, Sr., a minister in the Church of God in Christ, attended the Reformed Episcopal Seminary in the late 1960s.
"My early memories were of being a kid in a seminary setting," said Bailey Fischer. "I loved that environment, being surrounded by people who loved God and who were so kind and friendly."
In chapel, Bailey Fischer watched the families dutifully come to chapel, but the chapel environment seemed to be a challenge, especially for the small children. While in chapel, Bailey Fischer got the idea of holding a Children’s Formation program during the seminary’s principal service. The atrium not only provides Christian Formation for the children, but it also provides the parents/seminarians with an opportunity to learn more about setting up Christian Formation programs by participating as parents. Seminarians without young children have also participated in the atrium, providing a great model for cross-generational ministries in parishes.
Karen Maxwell, National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) Director of Formation encouraged Bailey Fischer to host her own atrium. "An atrium at a seminary is unusual; however, it is a great opportunity to give seminarians a chance to learn about Christian Formation programs before being ordained," Maxwell said. "The atrium gives them an opportunity to be part of the experience where they can see what is transformative for their children."
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is not so much a curriculum as a method of catechism, where the faith is passed on and echoed through oral instruction. Instead of dispensing doctrinal instruction, CGS connects the mind and the heart," Maxwell said. "Christian Formation is not just about what you know. CGS is hard to explain, because most people are expecting a written curriculum." Maxwell said she likes the discernment process because it provides an invitation to "come and see." "This is so important to understanding CGS."
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori-based Christian Formation program that teaches about the life of Christ in a child-sized sacred space. The stories are told with small figures and items that look like toys, but are actually teaching tools that help convey simple and profound aspect of the Christian faith.